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  • Writer's pictureBishop Peter F. Hansen

The Penitent

St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church

Bishop Peter F. Hansen

Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, August 20, 2023

“O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure.”

OUR WORLD teeters every day on the brink of believing or disbelieving in its Creator. The idea of a great invisible Being in the sky, directing the winds and tides, solar flares and every live birth on this planet, the orbits of galactic dust and ion clouds and all the while the orbits of electrons in every atom: it’s a lot to take in. How can any being have that much responsibility, that much power? Mankind has trouble believing in God. I have trouble with believing in mankind.

The science mankind employs insists that the fantastic and awesome powers unleashed in the universe are only accidental – a vast amount of mindless matter and energy. “Light does this or that because this is what light does. Animals seek food by killing and eating other animals. The zoo keeper is no different than the apes in cages. He doesn’t eat the gazelle because MacDonald’s is easier and won’t lose him his job.”

Science, as we’ve invented it, is our creation but lacks our better qualities: the brain child is all brain and no heart. This brainy science is dead and therefore is foolish, because it has no place for mercy. Lacking any place or facility for love, science becomes indifferent toward the objects of its analyses. Zeal is therefore supplied by scientists enthralled by the things they only see as dead. The most truly godlike thing about us is not that we try to be gods by looking down on the world, but that we look at others with compassion. When we lose that, we cease to be human, for our humanity is founded in our being like God.

The power of a tycoon or president or general may appear to be their ability to give orders and have them carried out. Is it power that a king or kingpin can let someone else die? Isn’t it more power when, having that authority, the godlike man lets someone else live? Consider Jesus. In His amazing life, He never made anyone die. He took power over sin and death, and in love and mercy gave us all back our lives.

Power is shown best by mercy. Mercy is how we might somehow be like God. Mercy doesn’t deny truth, and if our sciences discover truth, we need only to add mercy for it really to be true. The Psalmist had it right 3,000 years ago. “Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed. Truth shall spring out of the earth, And righteousness shall look down from heaven.” Psalm 85:10-11

In the movie Schindler’s List, Oscar Schindler sought to save the lives of Jewish inmates in a German concentration camp by curbing the cruelty of its commandant. He told him, “They fear us because we have the power to kill. A man commits a crime, he should know better. We have him killed and we feel good about it. Or we kill him ourselves and we feel even better. That's not power, though, that's simply justice. Not real power. Power is when we can easily kill - and we don’t. Not today.” And the madman actually tried a season of drawing power through mercy instead of brutality. The psychopathic commandant had lost his humanity and the mercy didn’t last. But to us, the viewers, we saw the power of mercy is greater than the power of cruelty.

There is an ideal size to any city, I believe, and when we build beyond that, concentrating people too tightly in the confines of structures and streets and each other’s noise, that’s when our best human attributes drain off. The reputed laws of the jungle pertain only to environments that are nothing like jungles, but all rather like overcrowded zoos. Let me drive through wild country and forests, and my attitude is good, my heart magnanimous. But confine me and my car to gridlock in downtown San Francisco or Los Angeles at rush hour, and I can learn very quickly to hate.

That isn’t the natural human habitat: it’s inhuman, competitive, and the survival of the rudest in an arbitrary world where ten lanes crammed with anxious commuters must now converge their cars into one on-ramp lane. God never made any world like that one. It’s the rare person indeed that can maintain mercy and forbearance when 200 tons of steel wants your space – now!

Mercy needs rescuing from the cartoon world that paints it as weakness. Pansies and sissies, pale saints and insincere politicians get typecast as mercy-minded when the Incredibles do heroic achievements through destructive strength. Marvel comics – I hate to break this to you – is not the real world. Wolverine, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, the Hulk and Mick Jagger are not real people. Real heroes daily face real threats and when they are confronted, they just smile.

They smile, not because they’re about to fire rockets or Birettas, but because it’s obvious their opponent simply doesn’t understand. It may be possible to disabuse him of his false position, and if not, an escape from his tirade can be found. There’s really nothing to get hot about. “Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy” is something true heroes know and they count on. Matt 5:7 “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” Luke 6:35-36

Jesus was clear on this. We forgive others as a real condition of being forgiven ourselves. It’s right in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s in the nature of our God, and thank God for it. It isn’t out of our own moral or spiritual superiority that we can bestow grace and mercy on someone who’s won our pity. It’s because we know how much we need God’s mercy and grace ourselves.

Jesus used the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican to give a snapshot of two men’s hearts. The better-placed man, morally superior and performing all the Jewish laws and almsgiving, saw himself as God’s gift to the world. His absurd prayer of thanks asks God to thank him for being so wonderful… and for being so much better than that guy back there, lurking by the temple door crying. That man, a tax-gatherer for the Romans, cried out his grief and contrition to God, pleading with Him to have mercy on his sinful soul. The one Jesus showed was closer to God had his head in his hands, moaning out his deplorable failures. Mercy comes from on high when we know how much we need it. When we fail to know our spiritual poverty, our real inheritance is forfeit.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged everyone’s notion on what God’s commandments were really about. The social order seemed to be set up on reciprocation, loving and doing good to everyone else when they love and do good to you. Jesus likened that to the sinful behavior of sinners and traitors. Even they know that rule. But if you want to be like God, as God wants you to be, then you should love your enemy, love someone who doesn’t love you back, greet strangers, and forgive the sins others do to you. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matt 5:48 I never understood that last statement, until I understood this. We are moving toward our likeness in God when we learn mercy, forgiveness, love and compassion. Someday, we will get there. Perfect means complete: we are becoming complete, and when we are, all love and mercy will be ours, with the power of them.

Chick flics and romance novels are not my thing. If it gets maudlin, I bolt, okay? I don’t care for sentimentality. And I am not preaching sentimentalism this morning. Sentimentality is the sweet frosty coating without the cereal, and it isn’t even real sugar.

I am more drawn to disaster movies. Give me a good volcano erupting, or a skyscraper on fire, a comet hurtling toward earth, with plenty of innocent people’s lives threatened. And why? The better movies of this genre give me a hero. A true hero isn’t just coming in with blazing guns. He’s intelligent. He recognizes the threat before anyone else. Steve McQueen and the Blob. He concerns himself with the innocent. He sacrifices his safety and wellbeing as he turns toward the threat instead of escaping from it. He marshals all his strength and brainpower and his great heart to the saving of others, regardless of the risk to himself. I like that guy. I want to be that guy. He’s honorable. He’s genuine. He’s not perfect, but he knows that and doesn’t pretend any different. It’s in his nature to save others, and in so doing, He is like God. Mercy wins.

Our collect today speaks to me as a real light on true power and how it is illustrated. Bullies and bullets don’t show courage or moral strength. That’s the lie of tyrants and terrorists – cowards all. Mercy, love, compassion, and peace through strength are signs of our origins from God, and so we pray,

“O GOD, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”


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